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Eco-Bills Come Due at Bay's Beaches

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 19, 2009

While the nation debates the cost of climate change -- whether the price of electricity and gasoline should increase because of their greenhouse gas emissions -- the problem already has a price tag on the Chesapeake Bay.

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Sea levels are rising almost twice as fast in the Chesapeake region as in most of the world, and waterside communities are spending millions to keep the water from eroding yards, marshes and sandy beaches.

The area's beaches are dealing with the same bad luck: The land is dropping, climate change is altering currents and the oceans are inching up. The impact is slow, but it's real. Beachgoers won't notice it at major ocean resorts. But for small beaches on the bay, the result is often death by bulkhead.

At the Calvert County shore resort of North Beach, the beach created the town. Now, as the waters of the bay rise an eighth of an inch every year, it's the other way around.

"This is it. This is what we're trying to preserve," said Mayor Michael Bojokles. He was looking at a beach three blocks long and so skinny that a Frisbee could be thrown clear over it -- the remains of the wide sandy strip that first drew vacationers in the 1890s.

The town spends $25,000 a year to build and rebuild this beach with trucked-in sand. But Bojokles said he knows the waves that eat it away will only grow higher and stronger. "It's a money pit," he said, but crucial to the town's tourist economy. "That has to be said: It's absolutely necessary."

The battle against the water is especially worrisome in spots such as this one, with "beach" in their names and warm sand in their civic hearts. In a few places, the name has become a lie.

"The bills are coming due" at beaches in Virginia and Maryland, said Michael Kearney, a geography professor at the University of Maryland. "If some intervention is not done, they're going to die."

The region's beaches range from the busy Atlantic shores of Ocean City to thin sand crescents on the Chesapeake frequented more by diamondback terrapins than by tourists. They are a long way from disappearing altogether: Erosion moves too slowly, and the economic value of many beaches is too high.

Two natural phenomena mean that sea levels will rise faster along the mid-Atlantic than almost anywhere else in the world.

First, the mid-Atlantic is sinking. It is an echo of the last ice age, when huge glaciers pushed down on the Earth's crust to the north. The land here was lifted like the other end of a seesaw, and now it's slowly dropping. Second, research presented last weekend shows that climate change will alter the dynamics of the ocean, weakening a system of currents that pulls water away from shore here.

At the same time, the world's oceans are inching up -- fed by melting polar ice and swelled as warmer water expands in volume. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, echoing a United Nations science panel, said it is "very likely" that man-made greenhouse gases are primarily to blame.


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